Ten brave families gathered at Houghton’s Pond last Friday, braving cloudy skies and gusty winds of up to 25 mph for friendship, fun, and vitamin D. Nature has been consistent this season, that’s for sure. We had a discussion scheduled for weeks, with a special guest, Sophia from AHEM, to talk about the topics of homeschooling beyond “schooling” or curriculum – for example, managing the needs of multiple children, coping with and preventing burnout, finding community. I was super excited about this program, because it was specifically for the adults. I think our turnout would have been bigger if it wasn’t so overcast and horribly windy after a week of sunny and warm days, but it was probably even better to have a group small enough to allow for everyone’s voice to be heard. We usually have groups of adults chatting at park day, but this was the first time that all the adults in attendance came together as a group to talk about these topics. This felt like such a big deal to me. I was so glad to have Sophia join us, and bring her experience of homeschooling two children (now adults) through college. I looked forward to learning from her experiences and to hear what everyone else in our group thinks and does.
We were planning to discuss from 1 to 230, but started late and chatted until almost 330. We focused most on community building and park days. Sadly, park days have been dying out due to lack of attendance. The working hypothesis during our discussion was that it’s hard to compete with “commercial” educational activities, such as MFA classes. In my blog post from a few weeks ago I mentioned how people in our area place a lot of value on education, sometimes to the exclusion of socialization. Many classes offer some social opportunities, like a common place for families to eat before or after, and of course there’s a lot to be said for meeting friends based on shared interests. Some people feel like they connect best in classroom environments. On the downside, the classes sometimes fall short of creating a community. For example, if someone is enrolled in lots of classes, maybe even really cool classes like creative writing through Dungeons & Dragons, the physics of rocket science, and/or organic gardening and cooking – they are creating an environment of school a la carte. While not the same as attendance of full time school, school a la carte is not exactly the same as other forms of home schooling, either. In school a la carte, the focus is primarily on the child’s education, with little opportunity for the whole family to bond with other families, creating a community.* It is expected that one will outgrow or move on from organized classes. Rarely will there be intermediate or advanced level classes for someone to move on to, once they have exhausted the introductory classes. A co-op or volunteer teacher format where parents take on the responsibility of teaching offers not only a chance for the parents and whole families to get to know each other, but also the opportunity to tailor the instruction to the students’ learning style and exact areas of interest, and to delve as deeply into the subject matter as the student wants and the instructor feels comfortable with exploring. If you can pair a child interested in model rockets with a rocket scientist – what an awesome opportunity for the child to have a mentor, and what a truly awesome opportunity for the adult to share their love of their subject matter with someone! This, of course, predicates of knowing adults who are willing to share their time and knowledge with your children – and this is where community comes in!
Park days, those great, egalitarian incubators of community, where one can go for free (unstructured as well as no cost) play and socialization. Our group has parents with fields of professional expertise as diverse as early childhood development, social work, teaching, performance arts, massage therapy, nursing, science/research, IT, law enforcement, law/policy, photography, advanced academics (two women who hold PhDs in math!), accounting and probably others (my sincere apologies to anyone I didn’t list. I value your knowledge.) In addition, these folks play music, bike and maintain their bikes, cook delicious food that accommodates a variety of dietary needs, garden, keep free range backyard chickens, make herbal medicine, volunteer at animal shelters, ferment foods from hot sauce to kimchi to beer, can, design sophisticated D&D campaigns, sew, knit, crochet, whittle, tie knots, build fires, identify wildlife, speak languages other than English, and so much more. I am honored to connect with you all. I feel like I have so much to learn from everyone, and if someone would like to learn about what I know – I am very glad to teach you. Unlike offering classes to people I don’t know, this knowledge exchange feels more organic. The teachers know their students and don’t have to guess about whether they’re really interested or if they’re signing up because their parents feel it’s important for them to know how to knit or do advanced algebra. It’s also egalitarian, in that everyone’s skills are valued not based on their earning potential but on their subject expertise. Even rocket scientists sometimes need to cook or tie knots — or maybe they’re already gourmet cooks and enjoy sharing their mad cooking skillz just as much as they enjoy talking about physics.
Of course, not everyone feels this way about learning and teaching. Many of us are busy, stressed, pulled in many different directions, and, frankly, wish for nothing more than fifteen minutes of quiet. Committing to leading an hour long workshop feels impossible, and asking for someone to lead one feels like a huge imposition. Paying for a class that’s already offered feels like a better solution, even if it means spending more time and money and giving up a chance to connect with friends. Our society places a lot of importance on individuality and self reliance. From what I see, many homeschoolers are extremely self reliant. It’s hard to talk about things that are not going well for us and share our struggles. Yet, we have so much to learn from each other. We are our greatest resource! I love when someone feels comfortable enough to ask another parent to watch their child for a minute while they run to the bathroom – because it’s not only that they trust enough to leave their child someone, they feel comfortable enough to not be self reliant. Almost always, the parent left in charge of the other child is happy to be able to help. Many people love to give, but to be able to give – someone needs to be on the receiving end, which can feel uncomfortable. I would love to be part of a community where people feel good asking for help, knowing that they are not a burden; that at some point they also will be able to help someone else in some way and the karmic balance will all work out. Let us be vulnerable. Let us support each other. Let us bond and create community.
We didn’t get to talk about managing the needs or multiple children and coping with/preventing burnout, as community building is such an interesting and pressing topic. I really hope that we will continue talking in the future. As we were all engaged in conversation, no one took pictures, so I will have to describe (though in less than 1000 words) that we had hot tea in handmade ceramic mugs and mason jars with handknit cozies, some plant based snacks, upon which the children adorably grazed (imagine a 13 year old munching on a cup full of veggie chips on his way to a Magic game, a small group of ‘tweens bonding over crackers, and a little girl with no top teeth managing a crunchy carrot.) Everyone took home yellow tulips, as a small token of appreciation for all the work they do as parents, always stretched and stretching, yet willing to find time to come to park day and open themselves to the possibilities of community. Thank you!
I will see you all next week, rain or shine!
*Apologies if I came across as judgmental. Everyone decides what works best for their family, and it is absolutely not my place or intention to pass judgement on how anyone chooses to facilitate the education of their child(ren). These are only my thoughts of pros and cons of various forms of at home learning. Everyone’s mileage will vary.